Hong Kong’s district-level administration will be overseen by “patriots” appointed through “multiple channels,” Chief Executive John Lee has said, following a two-month review of the District Council system.

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Chief Executive John Lee at a press conference on April 25, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Addressing reporters at a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lee said the government was “coming to a close” on its review.

The current District Council term finishes at the end of December. When District Council elections were last held, in 2019, Hong Kong was engulfed in citywide pro-democracy protests, and the opposition camp saw a landslide victory with a majority in 17 out of 18 districts.

But the city saw a wave of resignations from District Councillors in 2021 after authorities mandated the taking of an oath swearing allegiance to the Hong Kong government. Others were ousted from office over oaths deemed “invalid.”

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Of the 479 seats in the current term, over 300 are vacant.

Speaking about the reforms on Tuesday, Lee said many District Councillors “contravened the relevant regulations” at the start of the current term and “even engaged in unlawful behaviour [that] endanger[ed] national security.”

“Some of them refused to take the oath and refused to acknowledge that the People’s Republic of China has sovereignty over Hong Kong,” he said.

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District Council elections in 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Lee added that he “would not allow District Councils to become a platform for advocating Hong Kong independence.”

The city’s independence was not one of the demands of the pro-democracy protests in 2019. Lee did not give evidence of any District Councillors advocating Hong Kong independence.

Hong Kong’s District Councils advise the government on local matters, including public facilities and services, as well as the use of public funds, in their respective districts.

‘Pre-emptive action’ needed

District Council elections were seen as a democratic exercise in the city, with the public allowed to vote for their desired representative in their respective districts. In 2019, the polls saw a record turnout.

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People queuing up at Lek Yuen Estate, Sha Tin, to cast their vote in the District Council elections in 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Lee did not say how representatives would be able to gain a seat in the District Councils for the coming term, saying only that there would be “multiple channels for people to become District Councillors.”

“Electoral elements shall remain so that patriots who love the country and love Hong Kong and are dedicated to public service can find a way to serve the public,” Lee said.

Details would be announced soon, he said, adding that there was a need to take “pre-emptive action to prevent a repeat of what happened to our District Councils.”

District Council elections are typically held in November.

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Banners for district council election candidates in November 2019 at Lek Yuen Estate, Sha Tin. Photo: May James/HKFP.

A reform ensuring that only “patriots” can govern District Councils follows an electoral overhaul in 2021, under which only candidates deemed “patriotic” are allowed to stand in elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Election Committee and Legislative Council.

The Hong Kong government said the overhaul would ensure the city’s stability and prosperity. But the changes also prompted international condemnation, as they made it near-impossible for pro-democracy candidates to stand.

Lee’s announcement on Tuesday came after former chief executive Leung Chun-ying’s comment over the weekend that it was not necessary for the city to hold elections to appoint district-level administrators and that having public elections “does not mean being progressive.”

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.